As Dayton's Jewish newspaper marks milestone, its editor writes new book

·6 min read

Sep. 12—We're in the midst of a 10-day period known in Judaism as the "Days of Awe." The holy days of repentance and renewal began with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and will end this year with Yom Kippur, the solemn Day of Atonement.

It's a golden opportunity for reflection. At the moment, I'm thinking back 25 years to the time I was invited to join the editorial advisory board for the Dayton Jewish Observer, the community newspaper published by the Jewish Federation of Greater Dayton. It was an exciting moment when a young man from Philadelphia, who'd been living in Massachusetts and California, arrived in Dayton to assume the role of editor.

It wasn't long before we realized we'd discovered a real gem — a talented journalist filled with creative new ideas and a flair for making the community newsletter readable and informative. Our main concern was that some larger city would steal him away from us.

But thankfully, Marshall Weiss fell in love with Dayton as well as the young lady who would become his wife. So he stayed. It's been a joy to watch Marshall's career — and the publication he's so passionate about — blossom over the years.

Now marking its 25th anniversary, the Dayton Jewish Observer and its renowned editor have put Dayton on the map when it comes to excellent religion coverage. Recently, the Ohio Society of Professional Journalists named Weiss the first-place recipient for Best Feature Writing in the small newspaper category. Judges noted that his feature stories provide "depth, education and emotion" and that they are both "interesting and relevant." The award was the Observer's 11th first-place Ohio SPJ award and the sixth for Weiss. In 2020, he earned first place in Best Religion Reporting for his news coverage of the 2019 Klan rally in Dayton.

On the national level, he's regularly recognized by the American Jewish Press Association for excellence in American Jewish History.

The role of the religious press

Weiss views his newspaper as connective tissue and the heart of the local Jewish community. His mission, he says, is to hold up a mirror so readers can view things as they are and see how they can make their community a better place to live. The newspaper also serves as a forum for discussion and as a place that both Jews and non-Jews can learn more about Jewish life, religion, culture and educational opportunities.

Weiss estimates about one-third of his newspaper readers aren't Jewish; they pick up a free copy of the paper around town. You don't have to be Jewish to appreciate a new recipe for brisket or matzoh ball soup or gain some sage advice on parenting.

It's important, notes Weiss, to serve his community as it grows more diverse. "The challenge is to provide the kind of coverage that resonates with new expressions of Judaism without losing the interest of our longer-term readers," he explains. Top priorities include writing about interfaith families, LGBTQ couples and Jews of color. In his view, the most interesting stories reflect the ways individuals and groups expand expressions of Judaism for themselves and for new generations, how they "navigate challenges and find meaning, beauty, and sweetness in living the Jewish way."

Authoring books

In 2018, Weiss authored a photographic history of Jewish life in Dayton. The book, published by Arcadia press, begins with the arrival of a dozen German Jewish immigrants in the 1840s and chronicles life in the Gem City through the year 2000. Readers learn about Arthur Welsh, the first-known Jewish airplane pilot in America, about the first National Workshop on Catholic-Jewish Relations held in Dayton in 1971 and about opera star Jan Peerce, who gave the final performance of his career with Dayton's acclaimed Beth Abraham Youth Chorale in 1982.

In July, in honor of the Observer's special anniversary, Weiss followed up with a new book, "Stories of Jewish Dayton," published by The History Press. "It's a thank-you to the Jewish community of my adoptive home," says the author. "Dayton has been very good to me and my family."

The new book grew out of his role as project manager for the Dayton Jewish Genealogical Society and his passion for historical research and writing. Along the way, he also established a popular Facebook page, "Growing Up Jewish in Miami Valley, Ohio."

"History informs us about how we got to where we are now and provides us with wisdom to help guide us toward where we want to be, and where we don't want to be," says Weiss. "History adds depth to our understanding of the society and civilization in which we live. I believe each generation has the right to know and make sense of what and who came before us. The way we live in the Dayton region today is directly tied to the choices of generations that are no longer here. We need to know that we are all part of that chain. The way people will live in the Miami Valley a century from now is tied to the choices those of us here make right now."

Uncovering the stories

Many of these "Stories of Jewish Dayton" were originally published in the pages of the Observer. They've been expanded and updated to create a book that focuses on social justice, race relations and discrimination.

"Much of this history has been forgotten or misunderstood — or possibly never learned at all," says Weiss. "Now, as communities across the United States attempt to reckon with and dismantle racism once again, maybe this time we can learn from what went wrong in the past."

Among the stories Weiss has uncovered: — The most important caterer in U.S. Jewish history is buried at Temple Israel's Riverview Cemetery. That caterer's granddaughters — Josephine and Hermene Schwarz- founded the Dayton Ballet, the second oldest regional ballet company in the country, and helped diversify the arts scene in Dayton and across the country. — How NCR's John H. Patterson came to own a synagogue — and a Jewish cemetery. — How a rabbi and an African American Episcopal pastor kept the KKK from rallying in Montgomery County a century ago. — How the 1917 Battle of Jerusalem surrender flag ended up at a museum in Greenville, Ohio. — How local communities legally restricted Jews, Blacks and Asians from buying homes beginning a century ago and how — despite that fact — three Jewish families lived in restricted Oakwood a century ago. — Why Dayton's leaders turned to a rabbi to establish its Red Cross Chapter during World War I. — How local newspapers, particularly the Dayton Daily News, gave the Jews of Dayton a fair shake in their long-ago coverage.

"In several ways, the challenges our Jewish community faces today are not so different from those we stared down a century ago," concludes Weiss. "Even amid fearful setbacks, I believe the American dream lives. For those in America who haven't yet fully tasted the American dream, it is our responsibility to help that happen to the best of our ability, as Jews and as Americans."

How to get the book

"Stories of Dayton" by Marshall Weiss (The History Press, $21.99) is available at the Dayton Art Institute, Dayton History, Books & Co., Barnes & Noble and Katie's Hallmark in Vandalia. Online it's available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Target, Walmart and from the publisher. The Jewish Federation of Greater Dayton Federation is planning a community event for Dec. 11, a Saturday evening, to celebrate the book and 25 years of The Observer.

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